Attorney General Anil Nandlall has rejected suggestions that the jury system should be abolished and while he stands firm that reform as he had proposed recently in Parliament is the better option, legal sources say this would only work if the isolation of jurors and shorter trial times are taken into consideration.
It was Senior Counsel Ralph Ramkarran who cited the recent poor conviction rate from High Court cases and the growing complexity of crimes that juries have to preside over, as grounds for the dismissal of Nandlall’s proposal.
When contacted, Nandlall told the Sunday Stabroek that reform should come before abolition. He also stated that many are impressed with the output of the jury system and he used United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) as examples.
“Firstly, personally, I feel that the jury system plays an important role and it is important in our justice system,” he said, while pointing out that despite Ramkarran’s views on the issue, there are many people who feel that the jury system must remain.
Nandlall explained that before he made the issue a part of his presentation during the budget debate, he had consultations. He added that the judiciary, the opposition and general members of the public want the continuation of the jury system.
During the budget debate, the Attorney General told the National Assembly that a full reform of the jury system is expected to take place this year.
Asked how soon these reform measures will begin, Nandlall told the Sunday Stabroek that now that consideration of the budget has been completed, “I will begin to work towards that objective.” He noted though that meeting his objective may require the passage of legislation dealing specifically with the jury or it may involve amendments to the existing laws.
He noted that the jury system is an institution in place here for well over a century. “I believe that rather that abolishing it we should seek to reform it. That has been the approach in the entire Caribbean,” he added.
According to Nandlall, in his column published last Sunday, Ramkarran referred to the case of Arnold Rampersaud and argued that it is the one juror who held out and brought in a not-guilty verdict. He said that Ramkarran criticised him for not being cognisant of that. Nandlall noted that what Ramkarran failed to appreciate was that it was this jury system that brought in the not-guilty verdict. The system Ramkarran criticized, he said, brought in the not-guilty verdict.
Ramkarran, in his column, wrote: “…He [Nandlall] may not know that it was the unanimous rule that saved the life of Arnold Rampersaud, the PPP stalwart falsely charged for murder, in whose first of three trials in 1977 only one juror held out over threats against his life. There is no magic in the principle of trial by peers. It is an ancient system which has worked in many societies, particularly those which have inherited the common law tradition. Jury trial by peers is neither a constitutional nor a human right. They have been successfully abolished in common law countries and do not exist in countries with civil law systems. In many countries without jury systems, there are no complaints about the quality of their dispensation of justice.”
‘Losing confidence in the system’
Addressing concerns that some of the evidence may be too complex for the ordinary man to understand, Nandlall said it is anticipated that the jury pool, from which jurors are drawn, will be expanded. He explained that at the moment only a few organisations are part of this jury pool.
Nandlall said that when this jury pool is broadened and expanded, it is expected that a wider spectrum of persons, hopefully from varying educational backgrounds, will be attracted. He said that at the moment it is the lowest rank from organisations that are sitting as jurors.
He said that during a recent visit by a UK judge to Guyana, the jury system was among some of the issues discussed. Nandlall said that the judge had high praise for the system as it functioned impressively in England.
Nandlall, in his budget presentation, had posited that the administration of criminal justice is a two-way street and that the state and by extension the victims of crimes and their relatives are equally entitled to a fair trial as is the accused person.
According to him, during discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions and representatives of the Commission on Women and Gender Equality, they reported that from their consultations, “the wider society has lost, or is rapidly losing confidence in the jury system, especially in sexual offences matters.”
The Attorney General contended that statistics over the past three years with reference to sexual offences cases reveal a very important factor: victims are refusing to testify. Citing cases from 2011 to 2013, he stated that in the years 2012 and 2013, there was not a single conviction from a total of 22 sexual offences cases. This position, he said, was not very different in non-sexual cases.
Nandlall stated that in the examination of the jury system, care will be exercised to ensure that there is no erosion of its principal objective: affording the accused a trial by peers.
Nandlall argued too that the qualifications of jurors will also be reviewed since currently, they are linked to ownership of property, or earning capacity.
Though Nandlall has said that countries have taken the approach of reform rather than abolition, this is clearly not the case in Trinidad which has had a high incident of violent crime. Early last year it was announced that the Trinidad government was considering a proposal to abolish the use of juries for violent crimes although the explanation by the government was that it would ensure quicker trial times.
Persons in the legal profession say that the reform of the jury system can only be effective if consideration is given to certain areas.
One legal source, who is leaning towards the abolition of the jury system, says that it may be worth the risk to give the reform a try.
The source said that it has previously been suggested that jurors between ages 18 and 60 be chosen from the voters list. It was noted that this is the designated age range as stated in the legislation.
According to the source, the legal language used in the court is sometimes a challenge. “I don’t understand why they (the judge, prosecutors and lawyers) cannot break down things into simple language,” the source said. The source added that many jurors also lose interest halfway through trials because of the length of time that it takes for them to be completed.
The source said that often jurors would be overheard saying that they “fed up sitting down.” The source said that trials become lengthy because judges have to write the evidence given. It is for this reason, the source said, that the pilot project for the use of recording devices should have been launched in the criminal court instead of the Commercial Court and the Chief Justice’s Court. The source said that often during a trial the witness has to repeat the evidence for the judge.
“This sort of back and forth thing could be frustrating for anyone,” the source said, adding that the jury has to spend the entire day sitting at court listening to evidence which they sometimes cannot comprehend.
“Jurors complain about having to sit for so long. The trials are too long and drawn out so by half way through the day they done lose interest. The whole system is slow,” the legal source stressed.
The source said that the legislation also has to be amended to allow potential jurors to be questioned as is done in the United States. If that is allowed, the source said, then the best of the lot might be picked to sit on the jury.
Another area of concern, the source added, is the ease with which members of the jury can be accessed. The source said that there is no system in place to isolate jurors during trials. It was noted that very often persons have access to jury members and attempts are made to influence them.
“There is easy access to jurors. We live in a small society,” the source said while noting that sequestering the jurors needs to be addressed. The source said that when this was raised before, the availability of money to undertake such a task always arose.
The source said that unless the issues highlighted are addressed, the reforms being proposed will be ineffective and will give the same results that are being complained about.